So you’ve just put down THE DARK SIRE Issue 7, and you were enthralled by David Gibbs’ story Devil’s Acre or Kolby Diaz’s Rattling or one of the trilogy poems by S. M. Cook, and now you are inspired to write a horror story of your own. Good for you. TDS is behind you 100%. It is our fervent hope that our stories not only entertain you but that they will also inspire you to try your creative hand.
But where do you begin? Horror is a unique genre. It is one that inspires intense feelings of fear, shock, or disgust. But not everyone is afraid of the same thing, or shocked by the same thing, or feels disgust by the same thing. In other words, it is not a genre that appeals to everyone. However, that said, there are primal fears that are fundamental to the human animal, as a whole. As a writer, you have to search yourself to discover what basic fears you and your contemporaries have and use those phobias as the basis for your horror story.
Take Edgar Allen Poe, for example. Written over a century ago, his stories retain their power to haunt us because he played on the fundamental fear of people not being what they seem. Shirley Jackson, in The Haunting of Hill House, builds on Poe’s fear about people not being what they seem by adding a house that seems to have a malevolent intent for those lured inside it. In Pet Sematary, Stephen King capitalizes on the simple concept of a place where buried things come back to life… sort of. In Something Wicked This Way Comes, Ray Bradbury rides the carousel of peoples’ fear of losing the natural order of their lives.
Written in different centuries by authors who were incredibly different from each other, these stories all have several things in common that make them great horror stories: They all have innocent characters with whom the readers can identify while operating on the premise that bad things happen to good people. Each story preys on what the author feels to be their readers’ common phobias. There is something sinister about each fear, and those authors take full advantage of that.
Steps to writing a good horror short story:
1. When writing horror, first start with setting, taking specific care to create a solid, believable location. Ernest Hemingway once said that if an author can get his readers to believe in the place in which the story occurs, they will then believe everything that happens in that location. This is completely true with horror. Location, location, location. Sell the location to your readers and they will shiver at whatever terror you unveil, be it psychological fear, gross-out horror, or bone-chilling dread. Establishing the location at the beginning is key, of course, but does not mean just stating the location (e.g., New York City; Hyde Park, 1969; a dark basement). More importantly, use descriptive language to paint a picture for the mind’s eye of the reader. Just enough information will let the reader create a vivid image of the location on their own. Guide your reader through well-crafted suggestions (i.e., smell of flowers, a chill of wet dirt pressing down… could all indicate being buried alive when crafted correctly). Location can be sprinkled in throughout the story with location markers such as these that enhance the story’s premise. Location, then, becomes an integral part of the story and thus works with the unfolding of the narrative. When your readers feel like they are inside the setting and experience the location for themselves, they will feel the terror first-hand.
2. Make your protagonist’s stakes high. Will your story be one of life or death for the hero? For the hero’s loved one? For the hero’s town? The higher the stakes, the more evil the villain needs to be; keep the two forces balanced so you don’t have a weak or over-inflated villain. A good horror story is all about the characters: the hero trying to achieve a goal and the villain trying to thwart the hero’s plan. And remember, the villain doesn’t need to be a person, but can be weather, insanity, animal, self, disease, or monster. So how does the villain conflict with the hero and why is there conflict to begin with? How will the conflict create tension in the story? And finally, how will the protagonist overcome the antagonist while the stakes remain at their fullest intensity?
3. Avoid cliché. As the author, you need to balance reality with whatever is going bump in the night in your story. The hardest thing you will probably come across is coming up with a new angle for your horror story and avoiding trite rehashing of stories that have already been told. Old stories can be told with new twists. It’s your job as an author to create them. With editors reading hundreds of submissions per month, they see a plethora of stories that use the same cliches repeatedly, to the extent of boredom. How many times must editor’s read a character falling when running away or a character being knocked unconscious only to wake up tied and oblivious to their new location? These are cliches that writers should avoid. Instead, think outside the box and ask yourself what you can do to change things up. How can your character react differently? How can they turn the tables? How else can you switch the scene? What other scenarios, actions, dialogue or settings can be created to turn the normal, boring, overused cliché on its ear? The answer is easier said than done: Do the opposite. By doing the opposite of what is expected, you break the cliché and thus write “in the new.” If you can do that, you’ll get the right kind of attention from readers – and editors.
4. Point of view. Who is telling the story? Choosing the right point of view for your story allows the reader to get into the mindset of what you are trying to achieve. If you want your reader to be an observer and shocked by the things that are happening, you might choose the third person omniscient point of view. As a writer, the third person omniscient point of view allows you to enter the minds of all your characters to reveal what they are thinking, their motivations, their hopes and fears… of both your heroes and your villains. Don’t want your narrator to know all? Simply use third person limited, which means that the narrator only knows what has already been experienced – not all. Or, you could tell the story through the eyes of just one of your characters, through the first person point of view. If you use first person, you can only reveal what that particular character is thinking and feeling – a personal account. For instance, a story told through the eyes of the victim can only express the victim’s hopes and fears triggered by what the villain is doing, though it could be totally opposite to the villain’s real intentions which would have to be revealed through some kind of communication. First persona and third person limited point of view are limited in nature because they can only reveal what the narrator has experienced or is experiencing; yet, the third person omniscient is unlimited due to the narrator knowing all. Though the omniscient point of view allows the author to express what ALL the characters are experiencing and whether or not they are aware of how everyone else in the story is reacting, it’s not always the best to choose. So which point of view should you use? Think of the characters you’ve created and the story you want to tell. Then consider what the reader needs to know. A story that is written in first person will be a close account story, personal, and great for a bird’s eye view of the main character’s thoughts, feelings, moods, and action. If a more distanced approach is needed, then try third person. The best advice, however, is to try them all to see which one feels better when read aloud.
5. To Twist or not to twist. The trick with a plot twist is to avoid the cliché. You know, the person you thought was dead isn’t; the monster isn’t a monster at all; the victim is really the killer. All of these were great plot twists WHEN THEY WERE FIRST USED. But now they have been used ad nauseum. To recreate the old into something new, you must think outside the box – again. What isn’t expected that can happen? What hasn’t been done a million times? A correctly written plot twist, especially at the end, is awe-inspiring and hits your reader in the chest. It’s what keeps the story fresh in the reader’s mind long after they have finished the story. But then again, maybe your story doesn’t need a twist. Maybe your story flows well to an expected and anticipated feel-good conclusion. Readers love when they know more than the characters and see the hero’s plans falling into place. A twist isn’t always needed to fulfill a reader’s thirst because we all cheer when the hero overcomes all the insurmountable odds the villain has placed in his or her path and succeeds in fulfilling the quest nonetheless. Whichever you choose, be sure to end with an impact on the reader. There’s nothing worse then a weak ending that will disappoint the reader’s expectation. Remember: The best stories are the ones that leave a lasting impression.
6. Storytelling technique. A horror story is still just that… a story. Never forget that. The drama, the horror, the darkness are all part of the story, so don’t let them overpower your characters’ wants and needs. Your readers should feel empathy for your characters to give them a reason to continue the reading journey. It is your job, then, to balance the drama and the horror with realism, suspense, and belief to guarantee that your readers remain engaged and entertained to the very end. This means that story takes precedence. Don’t get caught up in so much exposition that the story stalls – or worse yet, stops. Instead, keep the story in mind at all times and KEEP IT MOVING.
So now all you have to do is write… right? Believe me when I say that it’s easier said than done. But if there is a story in you, let it come out. Don’t be afraid to sit at the keyboard and type away or pick up that old fashioned pen or pencil and scratch away until your fingers get sore. No one (especially those of us here as THE DARK SIRE) ever said that writing was easy. It isn’t. It’s work. But it can be very rewarding work. Every author puts their heart and soul into the things they write. That might sound like a cliché, but it’s true and more than just metaphor. Your heart beats at around 72 beats per minute. It might take you hours, days, or even weeks to write a good story and get it ready to send out to a magazine. How many times has your heart beaten during that process? Those aren’t just words on a page. They are the embodiment of your heart beats. We know – because we’ve been there ourselves. So get to work, and write your hearts out!
Practicing the six tips above will help you master short fiction horror writing. Here are a couple of application prompts to get you thinking outside the box.
Prompt 1: A secondary character is running away from the villain. Brainstorm at least three ways that the character gets away without the stereotypical run and fall and scream method.
Prompt 2: Write 2-3 paragraphs in a haunted house, where someone is haunted without using a ghost/spirit/or some kind of otherworldly being.
Prompt 3: Brainstorm 3 ways to invoke terror/horror in someone who is confronted with a common, everyday object.
Prompt 4: Using dialog only, convey one person’s horror of something to another person. Make the second person as terrorized as the first.
Prompt 5: Write 2-3 paragraphs of a scene with the main character in first person point of view. Then, rewrite the exact same scene in third person limited point of view. Now, rewrite the scene again but in third person omniscient. Read each aloud to see the difference in feeling, mood, and tone. Which point of view is best for your next story?
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Share your brainstorming and paragraph work in a comment.